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County officials and historians weigh in on Wikipedia’s worth

It’s a place where the city of Woodstock can lay claim to celebrities such as Jessica Biel and Orson Welles.

It’s a forum where an advocate for the village of Ringwood can insinuate to the world that neighboring Johnsburg once tried to annex the village because Ringwood has a post office, while Johnsburg does not.

It’s a world created by the people, for the people.

It’s Wikipedia. And it just turned 10.

According to its website, Wikipedia is a free-content encyclopedia project based on an openly editable model. Conveniently for the website, a city or village’s Wikipedia page usually is one of the first results to be returned for an Internet search of that city or village.

One prominent topic on Crystal Lake’s Wikipedia page recounts the 2006 Gay Games controversy.

“I don’t think that that was a defining moment in the history of Crystal Lake,” Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley said. “I can assure you it wasn’t a Crystal Lake official that put it in there. That someone has the ability to rewrite history and make it a defining moment should be a prime indicator of how valuable or not valuable that site is.”

A bigger issue is that some of the information that local officials found on their respective Wikipedia pages wasn’t accurate.

Shepley said that at one point, his two daughters had gone onto the site and added to his description that he has two beautiful daughters. That information since has been deleted from the site.

When presented with information from the Ringwood Wikipedia page, Village President Rick Mack, who said he does not routinely check the site, noted a glaring inaccuracy.

The Wikipedia author claimed that the village was incorporated Nov. 15, 1994. Mack said that the correct date is Nov. 8. He also recalled the annexation effort in question, which is stated as having occurred in the 1980s, according to Wikipedia. Mack remembers this event a little differently.

“That happened in the early 1990s,” Mack said. “[Johnsburg officials] were updating their long-range comprehensive plan, and a portion of Ringwood was in their mile and a half planning jurisdiction when they were updating. There weren’t specific annexation plans, but it was just in case someone petitioned outside the village.”

Johnsburg trustee John Huemann said that Johnsburg never planned to annex Ringwood.

“There was a huge misunderstanding,” Huemann said, adding that the main focus then was protecting land decisions that would affect the school districts.

“I felt that Johnsburg should grow to the boundaries of its school districts and shut down. I kind of forgot about Ringwood, which is within the boundaries of the school district.”

Huemann said that Johnsburg never was trying to usurp Ringwood’s post office, and that the Wikipedia post is inaccurate. He noted that Johnsburg actively was seeking its own post office.

Wikipedia’s approach differs from more traditional methods of gathering historical information.

Nancy Fike, administrator with the McHenry County Historical Society, said that the society uses original sources, such as census records, maps, obituaries, photographs and biographical accounts written by families about families. History books also are consulted. And cross-referencing is very important in maintaining accuracy.

“If you can get information confirmed by three independent sources, you can go with it,” Fike said.

The Crystal Lake Historical Commission follows many of the same principles as the county society, focusing its efforts on preserving the history of the city of Crystal Lake.

Diana Kenney, who serves as a member of the Crystal Lake Historical Commission and president of the Crystal Lake Historical Society, said that she had never seen the city’s Wikipedia page until recently.

“I think there’s a misconception among some internet users,” Kenney said. “Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. They use sources, but it’s user-uploaded. I’m not saying that anything on Crystal Lake is wrong, but it’s important to consider how the content is developed.”

“I also have to laugh because many of the texts in the founding section are taken from things I, myself, wrote, and that’s OK.”

Despite inaccuracies and the fairly common knowledge that Wikipedia pages are accessible by anyone, its use continues to grow.

According to its website, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the world’s largest reference websites, attracting nearly 78 million visitors monthly as of January 2010. There are more than 91,000 active contributors working on more than 17 million articles in more than 270 languages.

Wikipedia’s self-proclamation as an encyclopedia seemingly puts it on par with other reference sources. But as the site grows and more information is gathered, the danger of Wikipedia to students and instructors alike is that information gleaned from Wikipedia pages is sometimes used as fact in essays and papers, even though it is not considered a scholarly source.

Christine Grela, a psychology instructor at McHenry County College, said that she does not allow her students to use Wikipedia as a source for assignments.

“I tell them that it is OK to go to Wikipedia for information, but to use that information in a paper or essay, they would need to confirm it through an additional source,” Grela said. “So, it can be a good place to get an overview about a topic or a place to start searching for information, but information must be verified.”

That’s because Wikipedia’s content is user-generated. Or, as Wikipedia puts it, its content is “written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay.” Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles, except in certain cases where editing is restricted to prevent disruption or vandalism.

Information is available in a blink, but it’s not always trustworthy, leaving some decidedly unimpressed.

“I blame Dr. Spock, Sesame Street and McDonald’s hamburgers,” Fike said. “The mentality these days is that if I can’t get what I want in less than 15 minutes, then I don’t want it.”

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